Dirty data tricks could undermine SA’s election integrity – SCOTT TIMCKE

Domestic politics will anchor SA’s 2024 election, but the emerging international fault lines will be in the background

As SA approaches its next election, partisans will use online platforms to pursue their politics. Democratic elections always assemble clusters of antagonistic interests. However, given the narrowing margins of victory and the high stakes involved, parties and their supporters have more incentives to use unethical (and sometimes illegal) data-driven campaigning techniques.

Dirty tricks have advanced since the 2017 Bell Pottinger scandal, where the firm helped institutionalise political corruption in SA. Now “cheapfakes”, “botshit”, artificial disinformation-for-hire and other terms-of-art for digital manipulation and information operations are set to become a central part of the local lexicon.

Concurrently, while SA is hardly the epicentre of global turmoil, there is good reason to be wary about covert foreign influence employing artificial intelligence (AI) tools to sow discord in the election. But how realistic are these worries?

SA’s election policies and procedures do provide significant integrity to our democratic process. Even so, a close election provides an opportunity for foreign influence to undertake strategic nudges of the public discourse.

Though domestic politics around electricity, graft and retaining power will anchor the election, it is true that the emerging international fault lines will be in the background.

The geopolitical dimension

Shortly after SA presented its case against Israel at the International Court of Justice tweets claiming that the ANC was funded by the Iranian government were covered in a newspaper opinion piece. The story then initiated commentary about the sources of ANC funding.

This illustrates how unsubstantiated claims can rapidly and opportunistically spread through social media and traditional news outlets to reframe public discourse. More can be expected as 2024 unfolds, though with greater scale, speed and impact.

Many foreign state security agencies have the capability to “conjure evidence” for local reporters and party operatives. As image and video manipulation, voice cloning, strategically timed data dumps and leaks have appeared in other elections, it will be interesting to see if similar playbooks are used in SA.

Already sensitive SA government systems have been hacked, leading experts to question cybersecurity maturity and readiness. Countries that possess extensive expertise in information operations would probably face few technical challenges in amplifying specific narratives.

Whether these kinds of agencies have mastered SA’s many cultural codes is an open question. It may be that our multiculturalism provides resistance to foreign influence.

Beyond the issue of tools, there are questions of motivation. Under the ANC, SA has become a close ally of China through the Brics bloc, taken a somewhat neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine war and condemned the genocide in Gaza. These developments have caused friction with Western powers, which have different considerations about the international order.

Western critics who accuse the ANC government of pursuing authoritarian policies in a desire to emulate Russian and Chinese models of governance adopt a stance that is too hyperbolic. They overlook the current government’s nationalist desire for sovereignty. But are these frictions enough to power election interference?

Rigidity is desirable

Over the past three decades a great deal has been said about the SA political transformation. Through dismantling apartheid, the inspiring Mandela story has provided a template for troubled countries embarking on peaceful elections.

Foreign information operations risk undercutting the positive narrative that states can be reborn through negotiations towards liberal democracy. Indeed, foreign information operations would also come at a time when the Biden administration in the US is seeking to promote democratisation and election integrity across the world. And, lastly, efforts by outside groups to weaponise mistrust may ultimately create unpredictable politics.

As the most developed economy in the region, SA is a keystone that gives rigidity to Southern Africa. This rigidity should not be underestimated, as a relatively dull geography is in everyone’s interest, given the many events unfolding elsewhere in the world. With these wider issues in mind, there probably will not be any extensive information operation that really harms SA’s election integrity.

This is an important consideration to remember, especially if there is a change of government in SA. As recently seen in the US, when a party that loses an election blames outside election interference, soon no party is willing to accept the result. In the end, South Africans must insist that we are the authors of our own electoral outcomes.

• Dr Timcke is a senior research associate at Research ICT Africa, a research associate at the University of Johannesburg Centre for Social Change, and an affiliate of the Centre for Information, Technology & Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

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